Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 159-168.
Many people have wondered why socialism never came to America. Some think that life in the factories and on the farms was often so poor that Americans should have been ripe for a socialist government. Political historians have recently shown that radical movements in America had two insurmountable hurdles: strong ethnic loyalties and religious ties. During America's age of capitalist expansion, cultural divisions prevailed when waves of immigrants poured into urban factories and onto Midwestern farms. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants and natives fought intense local battles over prohibition, woman suffrage, and compulsory school laws. The economic debates over the tariff, monetary policy, and farm income were also important; but they seem to have excited less local interest than did cultural issues, which perhaps impinged more directly on the day-to-day lives of immigrant and native alike.1
The real test of the potency of ethnic and religious divisions in American politics is to look at their staying power during a time of economic crisis and class-oriented appeals. Do immigrant farmers, for example, respond to the politics of agricultural unrest more as immigrants or as farmers?2 In this essay I will explore the political reaction of German, Swedish, and Czech immigrants in Nebraska to the Nonpartisan League, a militant farmers' organization that agitated during the World War I period for increased farm income through widespread state socialism.
An heir of the Populist Party, the Nonpartisan League was founded in North Dakota in 1915. It quickly became a farm lobby eager to improve farm conditions by active state intervention in the economy. Arthur C. Townley, a former socialist organizer and the league's master strategist, campaigned to boost farm income. To do this he wanted to reduce the farmers' dependence on urban businesses and on those economic forces in Minneapolis that determined the pricing of North Dakota grain. By flailing against "Big Biz" in the form of bankers, railroad operators, flour millers, and food processors, Townley soon attracted an immense rural following-well beyond his original band of "soap boxers, socialists, IWW, or other born again radicals." Transforming invective into a political program, the Nonpartisan League endorsed the state ownership and operation of terminal elevators, flour mills, packing houses, and cold-storage plants; a state hail insurance plan; the exemption of farm tools from taxation; and cooperative rural banks. As one author has observed, "Here, with undisguised rancor, was a class organization with a class program and a class strategy." This "class strategy" was the political takeover of the state government of North Dakota.3